They were a dedicated lot, those thousands waiting outside the Capitol in the hours before the sun came up this morning. They had crossed states, skipped work and pulled kids from school to undertake a journey that, for many, was nothing short of a pilgrimage.
They waited, some for more than five hours, for a minute or two with a closed casket in the Capitol Rotunda, where the body of Ronald Wilson Reagan lay in state. Reagan breathed hope into the nation, many said, and after the long twilight that was his last decade, they were eager to pay homage.
Among them was Scott Cloud, who flew from Florida yesterday, motivated by "absolute and utter respect" for the former president. Cloud, a corrections officer, dropped $445 on a plane ticket and $150 on a hotel room. By 3:10 a.m., he had waited four hours, but he had no complaints. "The man symbolizes what America should be," Cloud said.
As the new day dawned, the line to enter the Rotunda remained a twisting, serpentine affair, stretching from New Jersey and Independence Avenues SE to Third Street and Madison SW before snaking up the south flank of West Lawn.
In the midst of it was Chuck Muth of Baltimore, whose black Lab "Reagan," recently deceased, was named for the president. With him were his wife and two daughters, ages 2 and 4. "The kids probably won't remember it, but we will be able to remind them that they did get to pay their last respects to the great President Reagan," Muth said.
Inside the Rotunda, Ronald Reagan's coffin lay in the center of the chamber, on a pine bier constructed for Abraham Lincoln. A five-member honor guard stood at attention. The coffin was bathed in the warmth of stage lights, surrounded by statues of the nation's most honored presidents and paintings of its historic moments.
Starting about 9 p.m. Wednesday, admirers filed past the coffin in minutes, ushered between red velvet ropes. The hands said it all: They were held over hearts or folded in front in gestures according respect to the former president.
Charlie Giblin and his wife, Mary, took the day off and drove down from their home in New Jersey. As they waited their turn, he explained that the appeal was partly the historic significance that accompanies the death of any U.S. president. "But I think there's also something special about President Reagan," he added.
Helping to bring the end of the Cold War, Giblin said, is an accomplishment "that needs to be recognized and admired by every citizen."
Others came for reasons more personal.
Joanie Lomax, 46, and her mother, Joann Strickland, had driven from North Carolina for the occasion. After passing through the Rotunda, Strickland, 68, teared up as she recalled the president. Reagan's office, she said, had sent birthday cards to her mother every year, a source of constant amazement to her. Strickland said her mother never knew that the gestures came in response to a letter she herself had written to the president.
"It was worth it," Strickland said of the wait. "This is what we came for."
Jack Penalver drove up from Raleigh with his sister. He had cast his first presidential vote for Reagan, a president who he said helped return pageantry to the country. Penalver, 39, said he had cried during the procession yesterday evening but found the viewing in the Rotunda anti-climactic.
Still, he added, "I didn't come here for an emotional experience. I came here to honor a great man."
To a country now stunned by the prison abuse scandal in Iraq, Penalver said, he hoped the president's death would remind Americans of the shining city on the hill of which Reagan so often spoke.
For those reasons and others, people were drawn to the Capitol into the morning. The subways were full at 11 p.m. last night, as people flowed off trains at the Capitol South station and into the streets, usually empty at that time of night.
Rick Siderman of Coral Springs, Fla., flew to Washington with a close friend and her 8-year-old son. Siderman said he campaigned for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and that "he was a unique individual." He half-jokingly said, "I hope he appreciates this. I've been here five hours."
Joe Kerstiens, of suburban Chicago, said he flew in to pay his respects to Reagan, who he called "probably the greatest president of the 20th century."
"I don't think there are any others that are still alive that I would probably make the trip for," Kerstiens said.